#Madonna: The Legibility of Racial Slurs

Usually a trendsetter, Madonna follows the actions of Paula Dean, Michael Richards, Riley Cooper, Richie Incognito, countless co-workers, neighbors, and college students to use the “n-word.” With her Instagram photo, she has become yet another white person who either doesn’t understand the meaning and history, or simply doesn’t comprehend or care about the harm, pain, and violence that comes every time a white person utters the word.

Either way, her use of the word provides a window into what Leslie Picca, a professor at University of Toledo, and Joe Feagin, a professor at Texas A & M, describes as “backstage racism” – the utterances, slurs, racial jokes, and other dehumanizing language that is rarely seen or heard, yet has consequences.

A picture is worth a thousand words, especially with a racist hashtag.

Used to caption a picture of her son boxing, she noted, “No one messes with Dirty Soap! Mama said knock you out!” she wrote in the Instagram posting, to which she added the hashtag “#disni–a.”

The combination of her son boxing and the use of this word reflects the entrenched nature of racial stereotypes.  I cannot help but wonder if her seeing blackness in relationship to boxing, violence, and physicality prompts her use the “n-word” here. Did the associations of blackness to hip-hop (“Mama Said Knock you Out”) and boxing inspire her to mark this activity with this particular hashtag?

One will never know her intentions and, in fact, her intent is irrelevant. She used this word, and she used it in association with her son boxing. Would she have used this hashtag had her son been practicing piano?  What if he was preparing for an equestrian competition or polo match?  What about preparing to take a test or audition for the ballet?  I doubt it.

The word and its use in association with boxing highlight the entrenched nature of stereotypes.  As Mark Anthony Neal notes in his book Looking for Leroy, blackness is often only visible as athlete, as violent, and as a physical body: “When we think about black men and boys, when we see them in certain kinds of roles we don’t even think twice about it,” noted Neal, a professor of African American Studies at Duke University. “When we see a black man with a basketball we don’t even have to process that… we know exactly what that means. If we were to see a black man with a violin that gives us reason to pause.”

For Madonna, her son boxing illustrated his blackness; his whiteness notwithstanding, his body was legibly black.  The fact that Madonna saw her son as black, because he was, because it illustrates the power of stereotypes; the fact that she sought to identify this blackness with a racial slur tells us how un-post racial we are. 

The faux apology is also a reminder of how far we have to come with regards to race in this country.  Responding to the criticism, Madonna sampled from the greatest hits of non-apologies, noting “I am sorry if I offended anyone.”

Worse yet, she apologized for giving “people the wrong impression.”  While claiming there is “no way to defend the use of the word,” she does just that with references to her intention and what she “meant.” #Weak!  Rather than taking responsibility for her words, choices, and actions, she instead focused on how others may have (mis)perceived her “provocative” words.

Clearly, Madonna is preparing for her next album: “Confessions of White Privilege.”  Her intentions for using the word are irrelevant, and to be clear, the word isn’t “provocative,” it’s seeped in a history of racism and white supremacist violence.  She doesn’t have the power – much less the right – to simply say, “I mean it to be something else,” or to say, “it’s a term of endearment.”

I can hear the responses already; all of which will emphasize how she is a victim of “political correctness” and that this illustrates America’s racial double standards.  Ignoring the fact that this entire piece is “one of endearment,” let me respond: America is a nation founded on double standards that provide daily benefits and structural advantages to whites in America. Madonna’s latest post is just more of the same #whiteprivileged #entitlement.

David J. Leonard is Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. He has written on sport, video games, film, and social movements, appearing in both popular and academic mediums. His work explores the political economy of popular culture, examining the interplay between racism, state violence, and popular representations through contextual, textual, and subtextual analysis. He is the author of Screens Fade to Black: Contemporary African American Cinema and the forthcoming After Artest: Race and the War on Hoop (SUNY Press). Leonard is a regular contributor to NewBlackMan and blogs at No Tsuris